The End of the Book Business As We Know It?

The New York Magazine published an article that began: the book business as we know it will not be living happily ever after. With sales stagnating, CEO heads rolling, big-name authors playing musical chairs, and Amazon looming as the new boogeyman, publishing might have to look for its future outside the corporate world. It is a very long article, but well worth reading if you are interested in the book business. What might be bad for big publishing might be good for independent publishers. Click here to read the article.

Claire Collins, author of Images of Betrayal and Fate & Destiny, both published by newcomer Second Wind Publishing, has this to say about the article (Collins’ remarks are in bold, excerpts from the magazine are in Italics):

Great article. Very long but good. The main points I got from it are as follows: 

A new imprint mentioned on the first page says they will “Have fewer authors and sell more books.” They will be publishing 2 books a month, with 25 authors signed up. And one of the “authors” is 50 Cent? and the other is a cookbook? This is what they think people want to read? 50 Cent is already out of date and do people really care what a dirty rapper has to say? The people who do care . . . can’t read. And isn’t the market already totally full of cookbooks? Any time I want a recipe, I look online. I don’t see this as being the future of book publishing.

The article says :

The astonishing success of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain led to a bidding war for his second book, which Grove/Atlantic editor Morgan Entrekin lost with great regret to Ann Godoff at Random House’s eponymous imprint (known as Little Random). Lucky him. The price tag, more than $8 million, might well have sunk Grove, one of the few biggish independent houses left, because Frazier’s follow-up, Thirteen Moons, sold less than 500,000 copies, according to BookScan. Ann Godoff was fired not long after the deal was made. “It is possible they broke Little Random’s neck,” says one agent. “Frazier’s wife will not have the luxury to buy another racehorse.”

This is why the rest of us get rejected.

He wrote ONE book that sold . . . ONE.

And the second one was a flop

All of these publishers are thinking they’re getting the next Harry Potter series and it’s not up to them. It’s up to the buyers and the public. When they get an author who does well once, they jump all over them thinking the author can do it every time. The expectations keep rising beyond what can be achieved.

The article says:

Why weren’t publishers elated? What’s wrong with a company that returns only 10 percent of the books it buys and might eventually eliminate the cost of print production? Well, it doesn’t help that Amazon, which has been on an intense buying spree (print-on-demanders BookSurge; book networking site Shelfari), lists publishers as its competitors in SEC filings. Editors and retailers alike fear that it’s bent on building a vertical publishing business-from acquisition to your doorstep-with not a single middleman in sight. No HarperCollins, no Borders, no printing press. Amazon has begun to do end runs around bookstores with small presses. Two new bios from Lyons Press, about Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain, are going straight-to-Kindle long before publication.

This means the big corporate publishers won’t survive because their overhead is too high, and it’s too high because they pay their lead staff outrageous sums just like they pay in some of their advances. You can’t survive like that. The small publishers, POD, and self-publishing will thrive. From the printer to the buyers doorstep. That’s exactly what we are doing now. Now it would really help if the cost of printing could come down.

In regards to the Kindle:

But Amazon may be offering a sweet deal now in order to undercut publishers later. If their low, low prices succeed in making e-books the dominant medium, they can pay publishers whatever they want. “The concern is they want to corner the market,” explains one books executive, and then force publishers to accept a genuine 50 percent discount. “If they took over as little as 10 to 20 percent of the market,” says an agent, “publishers simply would not be able to exist.”

 Of course they are. Amazon wants a $400 Kindle in every hand, and that price will lower over time. They want to be to the book world what Ipod is to the music world. 

What does the article say about the future of publishing?

Miller has worked out separate contracts, co-op and all, with booksellers and authors-capping advances at $100,000 and reducing returns. Their list now includes not just 50 Cent but Michael Eisner, his former boss at Hyperion; John Lithgow (a memoir); and Isabella Rossellini adapting her short-film series on bug sex. All these authors will contribute to their own pre-publication marketing.

Miller doesn’t wait for agent submissions, instead accosting writers at conferences, telling them how much more a writer can make under 50-50 profit sharing. He’s even throwing in something literary, 22 previously unpublished stories by Mark Twain, who, Miller points out, ran a profit-sharing publisher that made a killing on Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs. “If he were alive, this is exactly the deal he’d want,” Miller says brightly.

Profit sharing may very well be an option for Second Wind Publishing once it gets past the start up phase. When it gets rolling, our future can be wide open since we aren’t funding the fat wallets of stockholders and CEO’s. Just the publisher, at least for now.

Other industry folk, while supportive, note that precious few writers-except those with trust funds-would forgo advances, and that it generally works best for those who have a pre-existing fan base that will gobble up their books. As for Miller’s other key ingredients, profit-sharing is not a new concept, and online marketing is catching on everywhere.

Yet again, this is what those of us who are published by small presses do. This is the whole key that the industry doesn’t understand, and this is why they are going to fail. Writers WILL forgo advances except for when they know that the publisher paid the last author that million dollar advance. Then, they ALL want that. But if we look at how many people not only forgo advances but PAY to have their books published, then it refutes the claims of the “industry folk”. They are completely out of touch with the public. Who decided that we care what 50 Cent thinks or that we need another cookbook? The same people who think writers won’t produce good books without six figure advances.

One indie publisher has been pitching an imprint around town that would go beyond what Miller’s doing-expanding into print-on-demand, online subscriptions, maybe even a “salon” for loyal readers. He envisions a transitional period of print-on-demand, then an era in which most books will be produced electronically for next to nothing, while high-priced, creatively designed hardcovers become “the limited-edition vinyl of the future.” “I think they know it’s right,” the publisher says of the executives he’s wooing, “but they don’t want to disrupt the internal equilibrium. I’m like the guy all the girls want to be friends with but won’t hop into bed with.”

Of course the big publishers don’t want to hear what this guy is saying. They’re all on the verge of not existing and they know it’s true.

But going back in time isn’t an option. A hundred Bennett Cerfs wouldn’t save the current publishing model-not without a hundred Bob Millers puzzling out the way forward, unhampered by fear or complacency. The kind of targeted, curated lists editors would love to publish will work even better in an electronic, niche-driven world, if only the innovators can get them there. Those owners who are genuinely interested in the industry’s long-term survival would do well to hire scrappy entrepreneurs at every level, people who think like underdogs.

This is us again. We’re the underdogs. We don’t have the product placement advertising and we can’t pay to have our books dropped by the front door of Borders.

And think about how hard we are all working at writing and getting our books out there. The authors who are getting the huge advances and selling books no matter what they do aren’t working at it as hard anymore. Because people will buy their books just because of whose name is on it. But readers will only get burned so often before they do stop buying them.

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One Response to “The End of the Book Business As We Know It?”

  1. Bertram Says:

    Good article, Claire. New York Magazine sees the end of the book publishing industry as we know it as a bad thing, but I’m all for it. They do not publish books I want to read.

    What the article said to me is that the big publishers could be collapsing under the weight of their system, that they have lost touch with readers, that books stores are no longer the main venue for buying books, that the old ways of promoting books no longer work, and that some readers are looking beyond the bestsellers. A publisher who publishes books only as needed does not have to destroy one-fourth of his product because he can’t sell it, which puts him ahead of the game when it comes to profit percentages. A publisher who doesn’t pay high advances to a few at the expense of the many can develop a team spirit among his authors who will help each other find ways of promoting. An independently-published author who finds ways of connecting with his or her readers has as good a chance of succeeding as an author published by the big guys. An independent publisher who has a hard time getting his books in bookstores doesn’t suffer from a disadvantage if said stores are no longer the best or only place to buy books.


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